Last updated on November 25th, 2022
Ia ora na (hello in Tahitian). Welcome to paradise! French Polynesia is the stuff dreams are made of. If you’ve made the decision to visit this remote part of the world – congratulations. With tropical islands sculpted by nature’s finest artists, friendly locals wearing exotic flowers in their hair and shades of blue like nowhere else – you’ll be pinching yourself throughout the day to check if you’re really awake. In fact, visiting French Polynesia really is a dream, and you’ll be living it! With the help of this French Polynesia Travel Guide, seeing the paradise at the end of the world will be easier than you imagined.
I spent three months in French Polynesia as part of a six-month backpacking trip across the South Pacific Islands. I split my trip into two parts: before French Polynesia and after – that’s how special this place is. In fact, I even returned here for a second visit a year later for another month in paradise, and I now consult other paradise-seeking travelers headed to Tahiti and her islands, as well as leading large groups. In October of 2018, I returned for a third visit, this time cruising from Tahiti to Easter Island, and have since returned on two additional occasions.
This French Polynesia Travel Guide was written based on my experiences and is meant to help you make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime destination. The travel guide is geared towards independent travelers, but any visitor will find it helpful. In addition, I’ll try to break the myth of French Polynesia belonging only to luxury travelers.
This guide is the one of the many resources that collectively make up the Independent Traveler’s Guide to French Polynesia. In this post, I’ll share with you everything you need to know in order to plan your visit. Click on the below image to access in-depth travel guide to all 5 archipelagos. You can also get in touch if you want to get some specific advice for your trip and, if French Polynesia is just one stop on a longer trip to the South Seas, plan with this guide on how to island hop in the South Pacific.
You can also explore the various travel guides organized by archipelagos
Here’s a relatively lengthy but (I guarantee) enjoyable video that takes you across all five archipelagos in French Polynesia. You might need to disable your ad blocker for the video to load.
French Polynesia, commonly referred to as the islands of Tahiti, is a French Overseas Territory, spanning an area of the South Pacific Ocean roughly equalling Western Europe. Across this endless blue are 118 islands and atolls, some with names you’ll likely steal for future newborns. These floating gems are concentrated in 5 archipelagos: the Society Islands, Tuamotus, and the remote Gambier, Austral & Marquesas Islands. About 280,000 lucky islanders live on 67 inhabited islands and atolls, with over 70% of the population concentrated on the big island of Tahiti.
The islands of French Polynesia were among the last to be settled by humans. Debate and mystery still shroud the colonization of the islands. Still, it is widely believed that Polynesians originating from Southeast Asia (likely Taiwan) arrived in the Marquesas Islands after already discovering much of the South Pacific. Later, these masters of the sea spread across the rest of what is referred to today as French Polynesia until finally discovering the Society Islands at around AD 300.
Europeans first arrived in the 16th century, beginning with the Spanish. However, it wasn’t until the British landed in Tahiti in 1767 that stories of paradise and friendly exotic locals spread like wildfire. Among the notable captains that paid a visit are James Cook and William Bligh (the one from the mutiny on the Bounty). Europeans brought with them missionaries (and diseases that significantly reduced the local population in most islands). First, it were the English Protestants and then the French Catholics. When the latter experienced problems, France came in full force, eventually claiming the territory for herself.
This process was not without ‘classic’ colonial behavior. Tahitians were forced to abandon their traditional way of life: language, religion, tattoos, dance, and cannibalism (thank God). In the 1970’s France even tested nuclear weapons in the remote atolls of the Tuamotus, a controversy still in debate these days. Presently, there is minimal conflict between the parties. Tahitians are French citizens, enjoying a standard of living that can only be envied by some other South Pacific island nations.
The Islands of Tahiti are among the last places to be colonized by mankind, 118 islands, each with their unique personality.
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Adjust your watches and get used to ‘island time.’ Despite the modernities imported from France, Tahitians still enjoy life in the slow lane. This unique mix offers visitors the best of both worlds: a taste of the exotic Polynesian past with the comforts of Western standards (more or less).
Locals are amiable and inviting. There is very little chance you’ll pass an islander on the roadside and not be greeted with a warm hello. But, dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover a rich culture that, despite French influence, is nonetheless unique and mysteriously interesting.
What sets the islands of French Polynesia apart from other South Pacific islands is their diversity. Every island is different. Some have massive lagoons that are essentially giant saltwater swimming pools, while others are flat remote atolls or giant cliffs with no protective reef.
French Polynesia’s image as solely a luxury destination has been a double-edged sword, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Travelers seeking a tropical escape simply switched to more accessible destinations, while independent travelers did not even know that French Polynesia can be authentically enjoyed without spending thousands of dollars on an overwater bungalow. As you visit the islands, you’ll undoubtedly come across several resorts that simply did not survive the tourist crash and stand today as mini ghost towns. The recent COVID pandemic has also hit the French territory hard. Extreme but necessary measures were taken to curb the spread of the virus, leaving the tourism industry in shatters. I was fortunate to visit the islands in September 2020, during a brief moment of reopening.
So fear not the luxury hype! There is much to be discovered. The big question is: how will you feel during your next vacation after seeing the wonders of French Polynesia?